By 2020, America Could Look Like North Carolina: A Dangerous, Undemocratic Nightmare
What happens when Republicans have enough power to do virtually anything they want? On the federal level, that’s still an open question: We’ll find out if Democrats fail to mount meaningful resistance to President Donald Trump by 2018—or if Republicans stop infighting for long enough to realize how strong they already are. But on the state level, North Carolina provides us a preview. Thanks to gerrymandering that has been ruled to be unconstitutionally racist, Republicans hold veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the state’s General Assembly. (A federal court ordered new districts and special elections this year, but the Supreme Court blocked them.) This week, Republicans rushed to pass a slew of bills that could permanently damage the state’s courts, elections, universities, and the environment. They also provide a glimpse at the havoc congressional Republicans in Washington could wreak with just a few more votes in the House and Senate.
Start with the state judiciary, which has been under attack from North Carolina Republicans since Democrat Roy Cooper won the governorship in November. In March, Republicans voted to strip Cooper of the authority to fill vacancies on district courts and the state Supreme Court, delegating that task to the legislature instead. They also shrunk the state court of appeals from 15 judges to 12 in a shameless attempt to stop Cooper from replacing three Republican judges set to step down during his term. After Cooper vetoed the bill, one of those Republican judges stepped down early in protest of the GOP’s chicanery, allowing Cooper to appoint a Democrat. But Republicans promptly overrode his veto. Then, apparently out of spite, the House passed a bill requiring Cooper to replace any other court of appeals judge who vacates his or her seat early with a member of the same political party. Cooper could therefore be barred from replacing Republican judges with Democratic ones.
Legislative Republicans are still well aware that Cooper could threaten their dominance: As governor, he is empowered to roll back the GOP voter suppression measures. Under state law, Cooper can appoint three Democrats to the five-member state election board—which, in turn, can appoint two Democrats to each three-member county election board. Under Republican control, these boards implemented rules designed to prevent minorities from casting ballots, accomplished primarily through slashing early voting and moving precincts out of majority-black areas. When Cooper took office, he should’ve been able to reverse this disenfranchisement.
To forestall that possibility, Republicans attempted to restructure the boards in December, expanding them and dividing them evenly between Republicans and Democrats to create constant deadlock. A court struck down this overhaul as a flagrant violation of the state Constitution—but Republicans promptly resuscitated it with minor tweaks. Cooper vetoed the measure, but Republicans overrode his veto on Monday. The governor’s office has already filed suit against the new law. While it moves through the courts, he will be barred from taking control of the board and restoring voting rights throughout the state.
Next, the GOP took aim at sanctuary cities, which decline to cooperate with federal agents attempting to locate, detain, and deport undocumented immigrants. North Carolina does not actually have any sanctuary cities. But the Senate voted to defund them anyway—and then went on to make all North Carolinians vigilantes in the state’s fight against undocumented immigrants. The new bill allows residents to anonymously report their local governments or law enforcement agencies to the attorney general if they believe officials are not complying with state immigration law. Individual residents can actually sue cities, counties, and law enforcement agencies that safeguard undocumented immigrants. And universities are prohibited from protecting undocumented students by declining to turn over information about students’ immigration status to the feds.
Republicans also found time to ensure the further degradation of North Carolina’s environment: A GOP-sponsored bill, already passed by both the House and the Senate, strictly limits nuisance lawsuits brought against hog farmers in the state. Due to already lax regulation, hog farms can currently drain their pigs’ manure into giant cesspools called lagoons and then empty the lagoons by spraying the fecal slurry onto farmland as fertilizer. This vile-smelling waste disproportionately impacts blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans—who are more likely to live near hog farms than whites—by damaging their respiratory systems and dramatically reducing the quality of their lives and value of their land.
To remedy the problem, many affected residents banded together and filed lawsuits against the farmers, alleging that their operations created an unlawful nuisance. Hog farmers responded by demanding that Republican legislators—to whom they donate a great deal of money—shield them from liability. Republicans happily complied: Their new bill protects hog farmers and other agricultural businesses from such suits.
And finally, just for good measure, House Republicans passed a bill prohibiting protesters from suing drivers who run over them if they are blocking traffic, so long as the driver exercised “due care.”
North Carolina’s swift descent into madness should send congressional Republicans into fits of envy—and terrify the rest of us. It’s already parallel to what Trump is attempting to do: He has signed a few bills killing off environmental regulations, including one that prevented coal companies from dumping mining waste into streams. He also attempted to crack down on undocumented immigrants and sanctuary cities while mulling an attack on voting rights. To some extent, of course, Trump has succeeded: His executive orders unleashing federal immigration agents, for instance, have resulted in a nationwide assault on immigrant communities. He has appointed a conservative justice to a stolen Supreme Court seat and temporarily curbed the rights of Muslim immigrants.
But without more allies in Congress—or more cooperation among his existing allies—Trump can’t get to the juiciest parts of his agenda: His dreams of mass deregulation, environmental degradation, nativist immigration laws, and a true takeover of the courts are mostly on ice right now. Republican infighting has thwarted any significant legislative achievement, forcing Trump to govern through executive orders that are vulnerable to legal challenges. But he still has nearly four years to consolidate power, subdue the courts, and bring the GOP to heel. North Carolina today shows us what the United States will look like if Trump and congressional Republicans succeed. It is a warning sign that we ignore at our own peril.